How 15 Iconic American Beers Got Their Names

The United States got serious about beer in the 1800s, when many breweries introduced American lager-style beers to the masses. More than a hundred years later, some of these beers remain iconic, while others—like many newer, American craft beers—have been working on achieving that status. Here are the stories behind how 15 beers that define the U.S. beer scene got their names.

1. BUDWEISER

Today, Anheuser-Busch InBev is the largest brewery in the world, but it commenced with humbler beginnings. Adolphus Busch and his father-in-law, Eberhard Anheuser, ran the St. Louis brewery in the mid-1800s. Busch wanted to develop a light lager to contrast the rampant American dark beers. His friend Carl Conrad, a wine and liquor importer, had traveled to Budweis in what is now the Czech Republic and had tasted an incredible beer in a monastery there. Conrad took the idea back to St. Louis, and he and Busch decided on the name "Budweiser." In 1982, Bud Light (which is currently the best-selling beer in America) was introduced to the market.

2. SAM ADAMS BOSTON LAGER

Labels featuring a man holding a beer have been gracing barrels of brew for centuries, but its been synonymous in the States with a top crafty lager since 1984. Using his own money—and a family recipe for Louis Koch Lager that he found in an attic—Jim Koch founded Boston Beer Company in 1984. He named the dry-hopped lager after 18th-century Samuel Adams, who was a Founding Father, a governor of Massachusetts, a part of the American Revolution, and a brewer. (Like Alexander Hamilton, his varied resume deserves a musical.) According to a 2015 Brewer’s Association list, Boston Beer Co.’s the second best-selling craft brewery in the nation (next to Yuengling), and the fifth overall best-selling brewery.

3. MILLER LITE

We have a biochemist to thank for the advent of light beer. In 1967, Joseph L. Owades worked for Rheingold Brewery and discovered an enzyme that digested all of the starch, resulting in a beer label called Gablinger’s Diet Beer. Meister Brau of Chicago first manufactured the light beer until Miller Brewing bought Gablinger’s. In 1975 they changed the name to Miller Lite, and it became the first nationally distributed reduced-calorie beer.

4. COORS BANQUET

Adolph Coors liked the mountain waters of Colorado, so he established Coors there in 1873. Back in the late 1800s, miners in Golden, Colorado, worked hard every day and would gather after work and drink Coors beer in a celebratory banquet setting. In 1937, out of respect for those miners, the name Coors Banquet became official. Decades later, in 1981 the beer started national distribution. Besides the innovative stubby Banquet beers, Coors also became the forerunner of almost frozen cold-lagered beers (Coors Light), and they were one of the first breweries to delve into recycling, with the launch of their all-aluminum cans in 1959.

5. PBR

The Best family emigrated from Germany to Milwaukee and started Best and Company in 1844. Jacob Best Sr.’s daughter married Frederick Pabst, and in 1889, Pabst named the brewery after himself. They purchased about a million feet of silk ribbon, and workers hand-tied the ribbons around every bottle of their Best Select beer. At the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, the beer won a blue ribbon award, and Best Select’s name switched to Pabst Blue Ribbon in 1898. Today, the brand's mostly known as a hipster beer because of its cheap price.

6. ARROGANT BASTARD

This year, Escondido, California's Stone Brewing Company turns 20 years old, and one of their first beers, Arrogant Bastard, turns 19. Described as an “aggressive beer,” the strong ale set the standard for Stone’s West Coast-inflected IPAs and other hoppy beers. Founders Greg Koch and Steve Wagner have turned the brewery with the scowling, horned gargoyle logo into the ninth largest craft brewery in the U.S. "It told me what its name was," Koch told Thrillist about the beer’s genesis. "We did not create it. I did not name it. It was already there. We were just the first lowly mortals to have stumbled upon it. Steve was the first to learn how to brew the beer that already was, and I was the first to realize what its name already was."

7. BLUE MOON BELGIAN WHITE

The Belgian Wit (meaning white, or wheat) beer that’s served with an orange wedge derived from baseball. In 1995, Keith Villa, who is one of only a few Americans with a Ph.D. in brewing, began brewing beer inside Denver’s Coors Field stadium. Called the Sandlot, it was the first brewery inside of a Major League stadium. Taking his experiences from Brussels (where he earned his doctorate), Villa brewed a Belgian beer called a Bellyslide, made with Valencia orange peels and coriander. The Coors-owned beer was in such high-demand that they needed a better name than Bellyslide. "So one day, when a bunch of us were tasting beers, our admin called out, 'You know, a beer that tastes this good comes around only once in a blue moon,'" their story reads. "And with that phrase ringing in our ears, the Blue Moon Brewing Company was born."

8. OLD STYLE

Like so many other breweries on the list, the brewery’s founder moved from Germany to the Midwest. While living in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Gottlieb Heileman founded Golden Leaf Lager in the 1890s. Post-Prohibition, the company’s brewmaster came up with a strong brew for the company’s picnic and renamed the beer Old Style Lager Special Export. Old Style trickled into the Chicago market, and is noted for once sponsoring the Chicago Cubs (“Chicago’s beer”), and for its German brewing method called krausening—meaning to double ferment the beer.

9. SCHLITZ

August Krug was a homebrewer in 1849 and hired the recently emigrated, 20-year-old Joseph Schlitz to do his bookkeeping. Sensing an opportunity of a lifetime, Schlitz took over the brewery in 1856, when Krug died. Akin to Pabst, Schlitz renamed the company after himself. By 1902, Schlitz became the largest brewery in the world in crafting their American lager beer. In 1911, Schlitz was the first brewer to create the brown bottle design (to avoid spoiling), and decades later in 1956, they introduced the “tall boy” 16-ounce can, something that’s still prevalent in bars and stores today.

10. SIERRA NEVADA PALE ALE

Homebrewer Ken Grossman established the Chico, California, brewery in 1979 and named it for the nearby mountains where he loved to hike. A year later he started brewing the popular pale ale, using whole cone Cascade hops. According to the company’s website, Grossman dumped 10 batches of the ale before getting it right. The Pale Ale set the tone for today’s craft beer explosion, and more than 30 years later, Sierra’s one of the top three best-selling craft breweries in the U.S.

11. STROH’S

A German man named Bernhard Stroh settled down in Detroit in 1848, and started brewing pilsners like he had in his homeland. Stroh had originally named the brewery Lion’s Head Brewery, but his son, Bernhard Jr., changed the name to B. Stroh’s Brewing Company after Stroh’s death in 1902. Their lager formula won a blue ribbon at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, and nearly a century later, in 1999, another ribbon-centric beer, Pabst Blue Ribbon, purchased the brewery.

12. FAT TIRE AMBER ALE

Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan formed the Fort Collins, Colorado, brewery in 1991, but started brewing their flagship beer, the Belgian-flavored Fat Tire, a couple of years beforehand in a basement. The amber ale got its name from a European trip Lebesch took on a bicycle, or a “fat tire,” and the bike ended up being used as the company’s logo.

13. MICHELOB

In 1896, Adolphus Busch named his new lager after the then-Kingdom of Bohemia (now Czech Republic) town of Michalovice. Michelob Light didn’t show up until decades later, in 1978, and the carb-reduced Michelob Ultra was invented in 2002.

14. COLT 45

Many people associate the malt liquor—a lager with a sweeter flavor—with longtime spokesman Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). But when it was first created in 1963, the National Brewing Company named the beer after Baltimore Colts running back Jerry Hill, who played for the football team from 1961 to 1970, with the jersey number 45. 

15. YUENGLING TRADITIONAL LAGER

David G. Yuengling immigrated to Pottsville, Pennsylvania, from Germany and established the company in 1829 as Eagle Brewery. When David’s son Frederick joined the team in 1873, the name changed to D.G. Yuengling and Son. The family didn’t gain popularity with their beers until 1933, when they introduced Winner Beer, in tandem with the repeal of Prohibition. Today, the beer’s so well-known in Philadelphia that when you’re at a bar and want a Yuengling, all you have to say is “lager” and the bartender will know what you mean.

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Is There Any Point in Letting Red Wine Breathe?
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by Aliya Whiteley

At the end of a long day, few things beat simple pleasures like watching a good film, eating a bar of chocolate the size of your head, or drinking a big glass of red wine.

By this point in the evening, most people don’t want to be told that they need to uncork the bottle and let the wine sit for at least 30 minutes before it becomes pleasantly drinkable. Yet that's (by the letter of the unwritten law) what you're supposed to do.

But why? Well, let's start with the assorted historical reasons.

Red wine has been around since the Stone Age. In fact, in 2011 a cave was uncovered in Armenia where the remains of a wine press, drinking and fermentation vessels, and withered grape vines were uncovered; the remains were dated at 5500 years old. Early winemaking often had a ritualistic aspect: Wine jars were found in Ancient Egyptian tombs, and wine appears in both the Hebrew and Christian bibles.

The concept of letting wine "breathe" is, historically speaking, relatively new and probably has its roots in the way wine was once bottled and stored.

Traditionally, sulfur is added to wine in order to preserve it for longer, and if too much is added the wine might well have an ... interesting aroma when first opened—the kind of "interesting aroma" that bears more than a passing resemblance to rotten eggs. Contact with the air may have helped to remove the smell, so decanting wine may once have been a way of removing unwelcome odors, as well as getting rid of the sediment that built up in the bottom of bottles.

It’s also possible that the concept springs from the early 1860s, when Emperor Napoleon III asked Louis Pasteur to investigate why so much French wine was spoiling in transit. Pasteur published his results, which concluded that wine coming into contact with air led to the growth of bacteria, thus ruining the vino. However, small amounts of air improved the flavor of the wine by "aging" it. In bottles, with a cork stopper, the wine still came into contact with a small amount of oxygen, and by storing it for years the wine was thought to develop a deeper flavor.

However, how much of that actually matters today?

Many experts agree that there is no point in simply pulling out the cork and letting the wine sit in an open bottle for any period of time; the wine won’t come into enough contact with oxygen to make any difference to the taste.

However, decanting wine might still be a useful activity. The truth is this: It entirely depends on the wine.

Nowadays we don’t really age wine anymore; we make it with the aim of drinking it quickly, within a year or so. But some types of wine that are rich in tannins (compounds that come from the grape skins and seeds) can benefit from a period of time in a decanter, to soften the astringent taste. These include wines from Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley, for instance.

If you really want to know if a particular wine would benefit from being given time to breathe, try your own experiment at home. Buy two bottles, decant one, and let it breathe for an hour. Do you notice a difference in the taste? Even if you don’t, it's an experiment that justifies opening two bottles of wine.

One word of warning: No matter where a wine comes from, it is possible to overexpose it to oxygen. So remember Pasteur’s experiments and don’t leave your wine out of the bottle for days. That, friends, would be one hell of a waste.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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A Beer From the Middle Ages Is Making a Serious Comeback

Hop-forward beer is all the rage today, but in the middle ages many imbibers preferred brews that skewed towards the sweeter side. Now, centuries after it fell out of fashion, Atlas Obscura reports that gruit ale is making a comeback.

Gruit beer is any beer that features botanicals in place of hops. The ingredients that give the drink its distinctive sweet, aromatic taste can be as familiar as ginger and lavender or as exotic as mugwort and seabuckthorn. The herbs play the role of hops by both adding complex flavors and creating an inhospitable environment for harmful microbes.

It may be hard for modern beer lovers to imagine beer without hops, but prior to the 16th century gruit was as common in parts of Europe as IPAs are in hip American cities today. Then, in 1516, that style of beer suddenly vanished from pint glasses: That was the year Germany passed a beer purity law that restricted beer formulas to hops, water, and barley. Many of the key botanicals in gruit beer were considered aphrodisiacs at the time, and the rising Puritan movement helped push the brew further into obscurity.

Hops have dominated the beer scene ever since, and only in the past few decades have microbrewers started giving old gruit recipes the attention they're due. In 2017, the Scratch Brewing Company in Illinois released their seasonal Scratch Tonic, made from a combination of dandelion, carrot tops, clover, and ginger. The Põhjala Brewery in Estonia brews their Laugas beer using Estonian herbs, caraway, and juniper berries. Get in touch with your local microbrewery to see if they have their own version of the old-school beer in their line-up.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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